A Disciplined Spiritual Life Month 4

Skim vs Whole Reading

In this series, Ken Chitwood explores classic spiritual disciplines, taking up a new practice each month and sharing his experiences with the Thred community. Read more here.

Each morning this month, I’ve watched as my wife Paula cracked open the book of Proverbs — a book of wisdom in the Hebrew scriptures.  

More than a five-minute devotion or quick jolt of inspiration, Paula takes her time with these readings. She peruses the passage once, twice, and then once again [LINK to lectio/meditation blog]. She carefully mulls it over, tapping a pencil against her cheek and staring at the ceiling as she generates questions and collects her inquiries. She turns to other books for background, interrogates the subject matters each passage presents, and thoroughly — almost ruthlessly — unpacks what its implications might be for her life and the world at large.  

Then, as the evening ebbs into night, she revisits the text again, journaling and making notes on reflections she had throughout the day, meditating on the pericope as it percolates in her heart, soul, and mind.  

If I’ve been staring at her too long, she might hit me with a few questions she has. I am, after all, a professional religion nerd. It’s my job to read and study spiritual texts.  

I do my best to help her out, respond to her query, or point her in the right direction of resources for deeper exploration. But more than she’s learned from me about specific snippets of Scripture, I’ve learned from her something about the art and discipline of study.  

Diving deep  

Study, according to the spiritual formation organization Renovaré, is “the intentional process of engaging the mind with the written and spoken Word of God and the world God has created in such a way that the mind takes on an order conforming to the order upon which it concentrates.” 

Study is more than dipping our toes into the water of another’s words; it’s diving deep. Doing so opens up the possibility of a flowing dialogue with an author not physically present. It is how we can more deeply listen to, and learn from, the spirit and life of Scripture (John 6:63). It is how the Gospel submerges itself within peoples’ souls.  

Reformed theologian A.W. Tozer said the study of God and His word is more than an academic engagement with a text. He wrote how study enables a text to, “touch the far-in reaches of the human spirit, and their answers affect life and character and destiny.” 

That means, with dedication and discipline, study can lead to a fusion of source and student, fluidly intertwining the text into the reader’s inner and outer life.   

Barely getting wet at all  

The problem is, in a world of digital distraction, skimming, and speed reading, it can be harder and harder to engage in deep reading and thorough study.  

If you’re anything like me, you read. All. Day. Long. When it’s not books and journal articles, the ping of my phone reminds me of the text I have to look at. Then I panic-check the Bird app to keep up with a superstorm of news headlines and hot topics. And when I settle in at night to read a book, I usually end up turning on my Kindle and gluing my eyes to yet another screen.  

The end result is fatigue. Our gadgets exhaust us, isolate us, and turn off parts of our brain that are meant for learning, instead turning on other parts that zone us out.  

Now, I’m no luddite. I love me some technologies. And yet, I can’t help but notice how technology is changing why we read, what we read, and how we read it. In turn, the ways we think about the world, our place in it, and the people we inhabit it with, are changing too.  

The irony is that in a world with more information and texts at our fingertips than ever before, our ability to read and grasp complexity, to understand an issue, perceive beauty, connect with others over a topic, or produce knowledge around the questions in which we are actually interested, is significantly reduced. 

At my most curmudgeonly moments, I fear the new norms of reading in Z or F patterns, gliding over text in search of keywords, or listening to a 15-minute summary of a book for the sole purpose of knowledge acquisition are adventures in missing the point.  

That’s because a lot of it has led to what Maryanne Wolf, author of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, has said is a loss of “deep literacy.” Or, as historian Adam Garfinkle put it: As far as being able to critically engage with content, these methods are “anti-deep.” If we were to imagine reading and studying as a way to immerse ourselves in the pool of an author’s thoughts, then these new norms barely allow us to get wet at all.  

Renew. Revive. Repeat. 

It’s also concerning to see how this is impacting us spiritually.  

Wolf’s work shows that a lack of deep reading means we are less able to appreciate another’s perspective, connect with them, or generate new insights about the world around us.  

I don’t have to tell you how vital such things are in a world of hyper-polarization and deep division on everything from politics to whether or not potato donuts are superior to all other forms of donut (trust me, they are).  

When applied to reading sacred texts, this means we are stunted in our capacity to go on a personal journal of discovery, to come into closer contact with believers from the past, draw near to the teachings we want to be in touch with, or more freely empathize with and love our neighbors today.  

Skim reading has its uses. Podcasts and YouTube ‘splainers can be super helpful. But the discipline of study invites us to renew our minds (Romans 12:2), revive our soul (Psalm 19:1 – 14), and transform us into the image of God (2 Corinthians 3:18). We do this through repetitive, concentrated, analytic, and reflective deep reading.  

Pick up a book and dive in 

The good news is it’s easy to start.  

It can be as easy as “picking up an actual, physical book and letting it carry you away,” writes Wolf.  

Perhaps you can even follow Paula’s example (as I often try to do) and pick a different book of Scripture to reverently read, humbly sit with, and diligently reflect on for an entire month (Proverbs is a great place to start, as it’s got thirty-one chapters…one for each day of a long month!).  

Or, if you’ve already got a pretty good reading habit in place, consider going one step further. Try engaging with a classic commentary or an in-depth academic book on a spiritual topic or scripture passage. Expand your exercise of empathy and capacity for critical thinking by studying with others in a small group. Consider really testing your ability to think and focus by going on a reading retreat. Maybe you can even spend some time away from books, taking in the living wonders of forest and light, desert and darkness, heightening your appreciation for nature’s beauty along the way.  

Each of these practices can have wondrous effects. You’ll be more creative and imaginative,. You’ll be better able to understand and share the feelings of others. And you’ll be more in tune with the Author of the universe and His heart for the world.  

Above all, remember there are no “masters” in the spiritual life. The purpose of study is not to gain knowledge, per se, but to look at the world in light of our inestimable ignorance. Sure, there are mature teachers. Wise teachers. Teachers who have gone before us. Teachers who we respect, admire, and seek to emulate. But we are all learners, bidden to dive deeply into study with open hearts and minds to receive and open hands to give. 

Author Avatar

Share This Article